Belfast Telegraph

Foster urged to state NIE position

Unionist opposition to the Republic's electricity provider ESB buying Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) has seen DUP Energy Minister Arlene Foster come under pressure to state her position.

Her party leader, First Minister Peter Robinson, wrote a joint letter with Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey to Taoiseach Brian Cowen objecting to the deal.

But Ms Foster had already publicly backed the plan, having sought assurances from her Dublin counterpart, Minister Eamon Ryan.

The SDLP has objected to the intervention by the unionist leaders, noting that the NIE grid they described as "a key component of our national infrastructure", is currently owned by Bahrain-based investment bank Arcapita.

In July, three weeks before the unionist leaders' letter was sent to the Irish government, Ms Foster said she had already secured assurances over the £1 billion deal which is due to be formally completed by the end of this year.

"I have received assurances from ESB on a range of issues relating to the transaction. These include ESB investment plans, the importance of securing existing jobs, and maintaining the identity of the electricity network business in Northern Ireland," she said at the time.

"I will continue to keep a close watch as the transaction proceeds towards completion, to ensure the interests of electricity consumers in Northern Ireland are being properly considered."

But the letter co-signed by her leader read: "We firmly believe the two networks, north and south, can operate successfully together and bring economies and efficiencies, but it is entirely inappropriate, while ESB remains an Irish state asset and beyond the reach of any private intervention, for it to acquire the Northern Ireland grid.

"I am sure you will appreciate the political outcry that would have emerged if the Northern Ireland Executive, or the UK Government, sought to acquire the entire network of the Republic of Ireland."

Industry experts have said there are precedents for state-owned energy companies buying grids in other jurisdictions, but the political fallout from the Northern Ireland purchase threatened to escalate.

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